SANCTUARY FOR THE SPIRIT
Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 10, 2012, with Mary Goolsby
In February, Eileen and Mavis and I brought you a worship experience that focused on the importance of music in our spiritual lives. We wanted to give you a musical encounter that might move you into your right brain far enough that you could feel music taking you to a different place---not necessarily a place of sweet contentment, but a place of creative reflection and interchange.
The responses to the experience made me wonder if we could do the same thing with the visual arts and their importance in our spiritual lives. This morning, Gladys, Mary and I, with the help and support of others on the visual arts committee, hope to accomplish something similar as we explore the spiritual stimulation we receive through viewing the art another has created.
In thinking about my own experience with the visual arts, my own efforts to create something beautiful with paper or clay or wood or textiles, and the impact certain artworks have had on me, one particular work stands out in my mind.
As I’ve thought about this work, I’ve realized that part of its importance to me is that I know the artist, I know something about the experience out of which the art was created, and the colors and design cause me to contemplate its meaning at a deep level. I am always seeing something new in it.
I have brought it to show you. Many of you have seen it on the wall of my home; it is one of my most valued pieces of art. It is a batik created by a former student whose name is Valerie.
Valerie was very angry with me at one point in our relationship because I had learned that one of her teachers was sexually involved with her and I had to report that situation to the police. This batik was created during her tumultuous 8th grade year, when she was just 13 years old and trying to understand why all this had happened.
Later, when we had successfully navigated that difficult time, I asked Valerie if I could buy this piece of art from her, as a remembrance of our painful but ultimately growthful experience together. It has been on the wall of my home ever since.
Other works of art in my life include wonderful photographs of nature scenes, paintings by beloved friends including our dear Nola Allen and Judi Nyerges, needlework made as gifts and returned to me upon my mother’s death, gifts from others, and the many paintings, sculptures, photographs, and designs I’ve contemplated in galleries and museums, including the walls of this building and other sacred spaces.
This very building, this sanctuary, is a work of art that inspires me and gives me peace of heart. I sit in our chairs and from any angle, I can look out these windows and experience the movement of the wind in the trees, enhanced by the fine grain of the wood framing. I’ve often thought it’s like being in a life-size Ansel Adams photograph.
When I look up, I see the symmetry and texture of the crossbeams that support our roof. Not only are they eco-friendly, they are also lovely in their coloring and striation, with ironwork placed just so to set off the attractive wood structure.
Through our round windows I can see the sky, the clouds scudding by, the rain patterns against the glass. At various times of the day, the sunlight streams through our windows and strikes the floor, making the lustrous bamboo glow.
And our beautiful wall hanging of the madrona trees which line our landscape reflects the colors and shapes of our outdoor setting as it reminds us of the creative spirit that produced the design, the color selection, the intricate stitchery, and made our sanctuary extraordinary.
Other useful and beautiful elements in this room add to the visual effectiveness and stimulation for our spiritual experience: our beautiful pulpit, our chalice, the sanctuary doors, the ways the colors and textures of wood, fabric, and metal harmonize to create a visual feast of beauty for our worship.
Sometimes the beauty that surrounds us, whether natural or humanly created, becomes so familiar that its effectiveness is dimmed. We hope that today you will be refreshed and reminded that the beauty that surrounds us every day is a source of spiritual renewal and inspiration.
Mary is going to lead us all now in a meditative time, that we might experience or re-experience what visual art has meant to us spiritually.
(Mary leads visualization meditation.)
In their recent book “A House for Hope”, the Rev. John Buehrens, former president of the UUA, and the Rev. Rebecca Parker, current president of Starr King School for the Ministry, are clear about the importance of the visual arts to our experience of the divine, to our ability to find hope and comfort in human living, and to the creative spirit within each of us.
Here’s one passage from their book:
“Progressive religion in the 21st century will be stronger if it can engage not only music but also the visual arts in developing a house for the Spirit, a house for hope. Many Americans today gather in megachurch sanctuaries that exude the aesthetics of shopping malls or sports arenas. The spaces are purged of anything too “churchy”---which surely has marketing advantages, given how alienated from “religion” many people today are.
“But this accommodation of American religion to the world of consumerism, aided and abetted by Protestant iconoclasm lacks full power to reshape the imagination as a true home for the Spirit. Early Christians knew better. Their worship spaces were filled with beauty, giving a sense of paradise now to those whose eyes brought them there for the rituals…of shared worship…
“To give faith greater form, progressive religion must learn to become practiced and disciplined in the creation, use, and interpretation of images, not just words and music.”
Parker and Buehrens go on to say that in order to practice the love that is innate within us, in order to freely offer it to both friends and enemies, we must remember and re-imagine that love. Images, symbols, and songs are the medium for such memory and imagination. Without their presence, we cannot be fully human and fully creative.
Words cannot do it all, much as we love them! We also require physical beauty in our spiritual diet. Our restless spirits are soothed by the beauty of nature and take flight as we create beauty of our own making.
In the years ahead, the ministry of this congregation will expand and strengthen, in collaboration with your new minister, Dennis Reynolds. As you grow together, it is my fond hope that you will remember that a religious community flourishes best when the facets of its ministry are equally attentive to outreach and inreach.
Remember that in order to give your best to the larger community, you as the Beloved Community here within these walls must attend to your own needs as well. As the cabin staff on our airlines point out every time we prepare to go aloft, you must put on your own oxygen mask before you take care of others’ need for oxygen. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help others breathe.
Ministry is a demanding cause, whether you are an ordained clergyperson or a lay person. To be the most effective minister possible, you must take care of your own spiritual needs before attempting to take care of others’ needs.
I once naively asked one of my Iliff professors what his theology was, and he answered, “Beauty. Beauty is my theology.” I may have been naïve in my question, but I understood his answer immediately. Beauty is the wellspring from which spiritual wholeness emerges. That can be beauty of action, beauty of thought, beauty of words, beauty of relationship, but it flows out of an appreciation and a connection with the beauty around us.
We are lucky here to live in a beautiful natural environment and we have created a sanctuary for the spirit here in these rooms. As we are strengthened by the beauty of our home here, we become better able to serve the needs of the larger community. May your ministries of outreach always include beautiful music, beautiful artwork, beautiful relationships, beautiful words of hope.
Let's pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Before our benediction, let me offer this poem by Mary Oliver:
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Benediction: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering the beauty of this time and place and carrying it with us into our lives beyond these walls. May we seek beauty in nature, beauty in human living, beauty in creative thought and act, and may we strive to bring beauty into others’ lives, that they too might find spiritual wholeness in art, music, and loving relationships. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.